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Back in the USSR

Terrorism’s return to Russia is a metaphor for its failure to reform its polity and economy.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2011 22:33 IST

Beyond being a human tragedy, the terrorist attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport is symbolic of what ails Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The attack has all the hallmarks of Islamicist separatists from the Caucasus who have been in some form of conflict with the Russian State since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These groups, most notably the Chechens, have increased their attacks in the Russian hear-tland in the past two years following a lull in their activities after the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004. But what the return of mass terrorism to Russia really represents is missed opportunities by Moscow, a pattern of behaviour commonplace in all policy fields. Mr Putin came to power after the shambolic years of Boris Yeltsin and successfully brought stability to post-Soviet Russia. What was more impressive was his clear vision of a need for Russia to modernise its economic and political systems. This included jettisoning the remnants of the old Soviet system, bringing the business mafias spawned by Mr Yeltsin to heel and moving Russia closer to the West. This was helped by a surge in oil and gas revenue in the years before 2008 that seemingly gave Mr Putin a financial cushion to carry out reforms.

This vision has only been half-realised and, in some cases, even what was accomplished has been undone. Poli-tical reforms have gone nowhere. Mr Putin has strangled freedom of expression, seemingly using even assassination to silence his critics. The electoral system provides a choice of Mr Putin or a Putin crony. The economic story is even more dismal. While the so-called ‘oligarchs’ have been tamed, Russia remains an economy dependent on natural resources for sustenance. The Soviet Union’s impressive technological capacity has shriveled away: tiny Belgium files four times more patents than Russia. It is not that Mr Putin does not know what is wrong. It is that his circle does not have the political courage or skills to simultaneously release their political grip and enact economic change.

The Caucasus also represents a missed chance. Russia was able to contain the first Chechen insurgency but failed to follow up military successes with a political settlement. Unsurprisingly, terrorism has returned to Moscow — in the same way Russia’s other ailments continue to stunt its potential and keep it in the ranks of has-been powers.